Recently I wrote a post on the center of the Christian experience for Roman Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals. I wrote that the center for Roman Catholics was the Eucharist. For Protestants, the sermon is the center and for Evangelicals it is the personal devotion. I was asked by some to expand on why I see preaching as more important than personal devotions, since devotions can be every day whereas preaching is usually once to twice a week, and I am happy to do so. Before I begin I want to state that I am not asserting that a Christian’s personal devotion is something that doesn’t have value or isn’t necessary. I encourage my congregation often to devote time to reading the Bible as a family, with friends and certainly alone. My critique of personal devotions is not the devotion itself, but making ones personal devotional life more important than act of gathering together for corporate worship under the preaching of the Scriptures. In other words, I am not claiming personal devotions aren’t important but am claiming they are less important than the preaching of the Scriptures. Here is why.
Let’s begin with the Bible itself. As protestants, we profess to believe that the Bible is God’s highest source of divine revelation, that the Bible contains no errors, that it is sufficient to guide and direct all of our doctrines and practice. We profess that where our doctrines and practice are different than biblical revelation and sound biblical wisdom that we must adjust our doctrines, and practices to fit within biblical revelation and wisdom. We are not allowed to claim authority over the Bible. To do so is to claim we have authority over God. All Christians trust the Bible. If you don’t, then why would one want to be a Christian? Whatever you are, it certainly wouldn’t be a Christian. So, if you value the Bible in this way, then the desire for personal devotions centered around the Bible are valuable and important as they always have been for Christians. For those who do teach that personal devotions aren't necessary and have only been valuable to Evangelical Christians in the last one hundred years, may I refer you to the Book of Common Prayer, a lectionary or to nearly any confessional tradition? These have been written for public and private use, so let’s ditch this idea that private Bible reading and personal devotions play no significant part in the Christian life or Christian history. It’s not factual and silly to make such a claim. Silly because you are essentially saying that reading the Bible isn’t very important. If in fact you are claiming that, then you must ask yourself why you desire to downplay the goodness of the Bible? Do you have so little trust of the Bible and the Spirit that you don’t trust that good can come from a Christian reading the Bible? Again, let the silliness go. Now, back to the Bible.
Since this is how the Bible reveals itself, we then need to understand the Bible. The Bible is God’s word and primary communication to his people. He intends for the Word to govern and guide his people in our doctrines and practices and by obeying the Scripture we can trust we are obeying God and hearing from God. On this I know that all evangelicals will agree with me. However, do we agree on what we mean by the word “we”? I am using the word “we” to refer to the corporate collection of Christians called the Church. My belief about the Scriptures are firmly rooted in Protestant theology. I cling to and would die for the five solas because we are nothing without them. They are fundamental to our faith and practice. They are fundamental to me personally, but they are fundamentally more important to the corporate church. I am not the body of Christ. I am not the pillar and buttress of truth. The Church of the Living God is and that is why corporate worship centered around the public preaching of the word should be the center of the Christian experience. When God calls us together to speak His word to us, through the men He has set apart for the preaching of the word to God’s people, we are having fellowship with God and He is nearer to us in that time than He is when we are alone in the morning reading our Bibles. Why? Because it is through the preaching of the Word that God declares He will speak to His people and draw near to His people. Because our individual lives, are are bound together in a covenant with God and his people. One of the leading purposes of the Reformation was the restoration of biblical corporate worship and it was so because the Reformers knew that worship and preaching are God’s chosen means to meet with his people. We can know with biblical certainty that God will come and be with His people during corporate worship. If you are in a place where the Word of God is rightly preached, where the ordinances are rightly served, where disciplined is rightly practiced and the church is governed by men who are qualified doctrinally and morally to preach the word, then you can know that God is with you in corporate worship because He has said He would be there.
Again, this doesn’t mean that God isn’t with his people wherever we go. It means that He is with us in a special way during worship and preaching than He is during personal devotions. He makes no promises that He will be with us in this special way during personal devotions. He is there with you because His word is near you and you hear Him as you read His word. However, personal devotions are not commanded in the Scripture. Worship and preaching are commanded. Devotion to the Apostles' teaching in Acts 2:42 isn’t a call to be devoted to personal devotions. Remember, the Apostles' teachings weren’t given then in the way they are now. The medium by which they would primarily be devoted to the Apostles' teaching at that time was hearing the Apostles' preach. Upon hearing the Apostles' teaching, there should be day by day meditation based on what was preached in the sermon. This is a pattern to model our lives after. Hear the Word preached at corporate worship, knowing it is the high point of your week in the Word. Let this time set shape and form your personal devotional lives This was the desire for developing books of worship, prayer and lectionaries in confessional traditions: for corporate worship, preaching and Bible reading to feed the personal lives of those in the church. The church would then be reading and meditating on the same passages throughout the week, thus tying together the personal and the corporate. As these two are tied together, we can better understand God's desire for His church to be shaped by the Word. Preaching is doing more than the preacher knows and one thing it does by God’s design is feed the soul that gets up in the morning or stays up late at night to read the Bible to hear from God. Preachers must then give the Church what it needs and what it longs for: food from the word of God by the means of preaching. Some steps to help this would be for Evangelical pastors to believe again that preaching is the primary way God intends to feed his sheep. This means we must stop telling the Church, whether we do it in subtle ways by elevating other ministries to the same equality as corporate worship or in outright ways by telling them to go and be radical Bereans' and study for themselves and to not trust what we preach. By doing this, we undercut the God given responsibility a pastor has to preach the word, according to 2nd Timothy. Sheep need a shepherd and you pastor are that shepherd. You are called and ordained by Christ to feed his sheep, so give the food to the sheep that the great Shepherd desires them to eat. Let us stop believing that sheep do not need a shepherd to know what or how to eat. They need a shepherd to teach them and feed them good food and tell them what bad food is and why it’s bad.
I’d like to offer some encouragement to those who sit under the preaching of the Word. As you are fed the Word of God and as you learn to eat the food of the Word through personal devotions, remember you can learn much from the Bible in personal devotions most likely because your shepherds have taught you well or they taught well the person who taught you. You should read the Bible privately with a thankful heart that God comes and feeds you each week from the Bible through your pastor. Thank the Lord that He fed and will feed His other sheep this week from the same Word. Each week that you hear preaching, hear it knowing that it is a special time, the high time of your week with God. Even if the meal wasn’t what you were expecting and even if it hurts going down at times, trust the Shepherd of your soul that He is feeding you with good food and that it is for your good. If you don’t yet understand why, then read the Scriptures this week. Read the sermon text, the chapter it came from and even the entire book. Read some other things that will help you. Pray and ask for wisdom and guidance from the Sprit this week regarding the things said in the sermon. Talk about it with your family and, if you can some other friends from church. Talk to the pastor or another pastor from church. Search the depths of the Bible that was preached on Sunday like a Berean church member, who likely had great peaching and worship services.